In October 2013, Lipsitz & Ponterio obtained a substantial settlement for the family of a former Bethlehem Steel laborer. Our client, a resident of Hamburg, New York, worked as a furnace helper in the #3 Open Hearth Mold Yard. In the fall of 2012, at the age of sixty-seven, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. He brought suit against several companies responsible for the sale and distribution of a variety of asbestos-containing products to which he was exposed during the course of his employment.
After graduating from high school, our client went to work at Bethlehem Steel as an apprentice bricklayer. He worked alongside laborers who applied, removed and maintained asbestos materials. In 1966, he joined the United States Navy. After his honorable discharge in 1970, he returned to work at the plant for another two years during which he worked in the mold yards. Then he left the steel plant to work other jobs and attend college.
After a courageous battle with mesothelioma, our client passed away in October 2013. He was married to his wife for over forty years and had one child.
Before he died, our client gave a vivid account of his work at the steel plant in the #3 Open Hearth Mold Yard where he was exposed to asbestos-containing hot tops. As explained below, hot tops were an integral part of the steel-making process.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, two open hearths were operational at Bethlehem Steel. The open hearths melted molten pig iron, produced in the blast furnaces, together with scrap steel. This refined molten steel was then tapped into enormous ladles. Mold men would pour the molten steel from these ladles into ingot molds in the mold yard. Once cooled, the steel ingots were stripped from the molds, sent to the soaking pits to be reheated to a uniform temperature, and finally sent to various mills for finishing.
In order to produce a higher yield of usable steel, mold men would place metal hot top castings on top of the ingot molds. In order to protect the hot top casting from the molten steel, which reached temperatures over 2800° Fahrenheit, asbestos-containing refractory materials were used as a barrier between the molten steel and metal hot top casting. This was called a hot top system.
The older system of hot tops required workers to install fire brick inside of the hot top casting and cover it with a ¼” to ½” layer of asbestos-containing mortar (or cement). Workers mixed the mortar with water, which exposed them to dangerous levels of asbestos dust. From 1949 through 1973, more than 90 million pounds of asbestos-containing mortar were used in the open hearths.
In the mid 1960s, a newer system of hot tops was developed, utilizing pre-formed asbestos-containing boards, liners and rings. The rings protected the bottom of the hot top from the molten steel, while the boards and liners replaced the brick and mortar inside of the hot top castings. From 1967 through 1979, hundreds of thousands of asbestos-containing rings, liners and boards were used at Bethlehem Steel.
Regardless of the system, an asbestos-containing hot top cover was used to cover the molten steel in order to retain the heat within the ingot. From 1957 through 1972, more than 2 million asbestos-containing hot top covers were used at Bethlehem Steel.
After the molten steel was poured and cooled, cranes stripped the hot top from the ingot. The stripping process created clouds of asbestos dust, endangering all those who worked in the open hearths.
Before the process could be repeated, the mold men used scrapers to remove any remaining asbestos-containing refractory materials from the metal hot top castings. As dust and debris accumulated, air hoses were used to clean off the platforms within the open hearths, where this work occurred. On a weekly basis, bulldozers would come through and push all of the asbestos-containing dust and debris out of the open hearths for disposal. The cleaning of the hot tops, air hosing, and bulldozing exposed laborers who worked within the open hearths to massive quantities of breathable asbestos fibers.
Additionally, workers, like our client were exposed to asbestos-containing insulation materials that were installed and removed from pipes and equipment located throughout the open hearths.
This case is important to other men and women who worked at Bethlehem Steel because it describes, in great detail, a process involving overwhelming exposure to asbestos.